Bill Lynch Published

A Health Alert On Ticks

A picture of a black legged tick sitting on a blade of grass
Warm weather sends more people outside. But enjoying nature has it’s inherent risks, including ticks which can cause disease. Pictured is the black-legged tick, or deer tick, which can spread Lyme disease.
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Warm weather sends people outside. But while you’re out, enjoying nature, ticks are waiting for a chance to take a bite.

Bill Lynch spoke with regional epidemiologist Daniel Barker-Gumm and Dr. Steven Eshenaur, the health officer for the Kanawha County Health Department about the growing tick population and what to do if you find a tick latched to your body.

Lynch: So we’re talking about ticks. The reason I’m interested in ticks is the first time I cut my grass, I pulled three off me. It got me thinking about ticks and worrying about ticks. Someone talked to me about ticks.

Barker-Gumm: There are a few reasons you may be seeing more ticks. And part of that is global warming. The fact that we’ve been going into more natural areas. The human population is expanding. So, we’re going to encounter more wildlife. Also, we’ve seen an increase in tick presence in general in this state and believe that more tick borne diseases are coming this way. And every year, we see higher numbers of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses.

Lynch: What kind of wildlife is carrying ticks to toward the human population?

Barker-Gumm: The big one that we’re concerned about is deer, because of the black legged tick or deer tick, as it’s commonly called – carries Lyme disease. Many other mammals can be vectors as well, even some reptiles.

Lynch: You mentioned other diseases besides Lyme disease. What else should we worry about?

Barker-Gumm: Well, we’ve also got other diseases such as ehrlichiosis, babeseiosis, and tularemia. Those are much more rare than Lyme is. But we do expect to see more increases in them. Every year, we get a few more of those.

Lynch: If someone gets a tick, or three, how concerned should you be about Lyme disease or picking up something else?

Barker-Gumm: The good news is that they found that if you can remove a tick within 24 hours, your chance of getting infectious disease from them is very, very small. So if you can detect the tick on you, before it feeds off you, before it takes a blood meal – and you’ll know that too, because they become engorged and they look much different than a tick that hasn’t. 

That’s when you maybe want to get concerned if it’s taken a blood meal. 

You don’t know how long it’s been on you, and especially if you develop a rash in the region where it fed on you. Then, that may be time to go see a doctor.

Lynch: Lyme disease, how would you even know if you had it.

Eshenaur: So Lyme disease can be detected in a couple of different ways. One is the symptomatology of it. You had a tick, you then developed a rash. And sometimes it looks like a bullseye. So, you can have the rash and then the other symptoms that can come with it. It can be body aches, it can be joint aches, kind of like a flu-like syndrome that you just don’t feel well. It will combine that with the history of a tick bite, and especially if you do have the rash, which not everybody develops the rash, but many do. Then, as a physician, usually, I’m going to go and start them empirically and then do a blood test – and the Lyme disease can be detected through a blood test, definitively. 

One other point, if you do have a tick on you and you’re able to get it off within about 48 hours, your physician can also prescribe you a prophylactic dose of doxycycline, that single dose typically prevents Lyme disease from becoming a true infectious disease of the body.

Lynch: Any advice on checking for ticks? Is there? Is there a method to it? Is there a proper way to do it?

Barker-Gumm: I always tell people to look for crevices in your body. Ticks are sometimes really picky about where they want to feed at. So, like under your armpits and your belly button. Sometimes in your groin. They like to find a safe, secure spot where they can feed uninterrupted – also in your scalp, which is another reason I tell people to shower if you just went camping or you’re out in the woods for a while. 

We have three major tick species that cause disease in West Virginia. And that’s the deer tick or black-legged tick. We have the eastern dog tick and the lone star tick. 

The deer tick can cause Lyme disease and Ehrlichiosis. The lone star tick can also cause Ehrlichiosis, and it can also cause a red meat allergy called alpha-gal syndrome.And the dog tick can cause Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.

Lynch: I’ve been hearing more about the alpha-gal syndrome. Can someone talk about that?

Eshenaur: Alpha-gal syndrome usually occurs after someone has had the disease ehrlichiosis, which is commonly transmitted by the lone star tick. Basically, an antibody to the antigen of ehrlichiosis that crosses over to red meats and milk and cheese. So, unfortunately, those patients usually end up having a red meat allergy that many times persists for life.

Lynch: Is there anything you can do for your property to, I guess, reduce ticks?

Barker-Gumm: So, if you cut your grass fairly often and keep it short, usually that keeps the ticks down at least a little bit.

Eshenaur: Another thing we do and we live out in the country. On the farm, in the yard areas, we spray some malathion one evening, typically a couple times in the early in the year – and that really has helped keep the ticks down.

It’s an insecticide, but you spray it on at night or right as it gets dark. It’s broken down by UV light, so it doesn’t hang around long. The next day, the UV light coming from the sky, whether it’s cloudy or not, will break down the malathion, so it has a very safe profile for pets. You keep them out of the yard during that time and then by the next evening, you can’t even tell it’s there. It’s gone.